The Heads of State
Life goes on, and then suddenly, stuff happens. For these five women, going solo reinforced a frugal lifestyle that has created both opportunities and meaning. Here’s their best advice:
When Deborah Deboff got divorced at age 40, the financial impact didn’t concern her. DeHoff grew up so poor that her family often had to turn off the heat to save money. She never got an allowance or went to the movies. She rose early each morning to milk cows and bale hay.
“I vowed that my life would not be that way as an adult,” says DeHoff, who is now a certified financial planner and owns 10 acres — with two horses — in Elkhart, Indiana.
After her marriage ended, she persuaded her employer to help pay for a college degree. That allowed her to shift from part-time work to a full-time career as a financial planner.
But the frugal ways of her childhood are ingrained.
“Frugality is a lifestyle,” she says. “You have to make a conscious decision about every last thing you spend on.”
For example, she still never goes to the movies: Films, TV series, books, music, even internet access are all free at the public library. She plans the rest of her financial life the same way.
A few more tips:
- Cut your own lawn. “I won’t pay someone to do what I can do.”
- Shop with a list, and stick to it. “If I need black pants, I don’t buy the blue skirt that’s on sale.”
- Buy in bulk. DeHoff’s two horses, Monster and Sophie, are her only extravagance. Even then, she buys their grain and hay in bulk and gets big discounts.
- Keep a loose-change jar. Dump change into it at the end of each day; never raid it. When it’s full, make a savings account deposit.
- Spend on what matters. For vacation, DeHoff stays home and spends extra time with her horses. “I don’t even go to Starbucks,” she says. “Feeding the horses is more important.”
If you travel much on your own — as Evelyn Hannon has since her divorce 30-some years ago — it’s crucial to find ways to save.
The blogger, called by some the grandmother of women’s travel, is founder of Journeywoman.com, which seeks to inspire women to explore the world. Although she’s reached a point where she can afford some luxury, Hannon says she still prefers budget travel.
“The most fun you can have traveling is trying to live like a local,” she says. “And the great thing is that when you do, you invariably save money.”
For example, Hannon never buys bottled water when traveling. Instead, she finds the nearest supermarket, purchases a big jug of water and keeps it in her hotel room to refill her bottle throughout the trip.
Hannon started traveling solo in the 1980s, when few women ventured out alone. “I said to myself, If I can travel on my own for 35 days and not die, it will be a metaphor for the rest of my life.
It has been that — and more.
Other budget-travel tips:
- Fly midweek. Tuesdays and Wednesdays offer the best fares.
- Travel off-season. Try just a few days after major holidays.
- Pack an e-reader, even if you have to borrow one. Downloading guidebooks and reading material saves big cash.
- Consider staying at dorms. In the summer, university housing can often be rented for a song.
- Don’t buy a cheap suitcase. Go for a top-quality one with good rollers. “It will save you money in the long run,” she says.
Divorced for 30 years, Allen calls herself “poor but proud.” Retired from state jobs for medical reasons since 2001, she lives in Sutherlin, Oregon, on $716 a month, including $122 in government income. To her, living well on very little is a game of resourcefulness. “I always told people I could eat sawdust and poop a two-by-four,” she says with a laugh.
With a great passion for handicrafts, Allen busies herself doing projects in her “croffice” — aka the crafts office in her bedroom. The 600 skeins of yarn she owns all came secondhand. Beads are from used jewelry. Fabric was mostly found.
A few more ideas:
- Find friends at discount spots. “The ladies at Goodwill keep an eye out for the things I like,” she says. “I’ll bring them empty bags, which they always need, and they’ll call me if any crafting products come in.”
- Stay organized in the kitchen. Freeze meat, fish and poultry in zip-style plastic bags, which keep foods flat. Then separate into labeled shoe boxes so items are a snap to find.
- Prevent big expenses. Maintain your car, and keep the house clear of tripping hazards.
- Stay positive. “It helps to have a lot of natural light in the house.”
Ruffin is a divorced mom to Zion, an energetic 10-year-old boy with special needs. For her, survival is as much about resilience and satisfaction as it is about financial solvency. “I need to fuel my soul if I’m going to be a good mother,” she says, “so I’m constantly looking for ways to fill my emotional reserves along with my bank account.”
It’s a skill she learned as a child in what used to be called South-Central Los Angeles. Ruffin lived with her grandparents, who together never earned more than $17,000 a year. But a sense of community and sacrifice prevailed.
“Everybody chipped in to send me first to a private school and then to college, and I managed to get by,” she recalls.
To stay balanced, Ruffin still relies on community and faith. “There’s a lot of grace in my life,” she says. “Things just work out, and I don’t know how sometimes. I’m literally living one day at a time. Thank God I have a foundational spiritual practice. It makes me feel sane when I feel like I don’t know how to do this.”
A few lessons she’s learned:
- Surround yourself with love. Form a support group with friends, and get together and talk. People won’t know you have money woes unless you tell them, and you might get a job by simply spreading the word.
- Never stop learning. “A friend started an internet radio show, and I thought, I like to talk and have opinions, so I learned,” she says. “Now I have a show of my own.”
- Cut up the plastic. Or hide it. If you don’t have a credit card around, there’s not one to spend money with.
- House-sit. “I have a friend with a pool, and when she’s away, it’s a vacation for Zion and me.”
- Closet surf. Don’t buy new clothes. Borrow and share with friends, for everyday and special occasions.
Lundquist's husband, Tom, passed away in 2004, just as the two were renovating an expansive, art-filled home on their vineyard in California. Although they were together for 20 years, they were married only eight months, and she didn't qualify for his Social Security benefits. So Lundquist decided to downsize and buy a place in Sacramento. Meanwhile, her event-planning business stalled along with the economy. Her response was to get creative and follow her passion.
This is what she learned:
- Get a job you can really enjoy. "A friend suggested work as an on-call usher so I could see shows free," Lundquist says. The job helps cover property taxes and offers free access to theater, expos and art shows.
- Find inspiration wherever you land. "I adore being back downtown. Doors are painted red, or orange and purple, and people drive cars decorated with graffiti. There is action, variety." Inspired, she became a photographer. "I've won awards, sold pieces and published a book."
- Enjoy the night air. "To save on utilities, I turn off the AC and put the fan on to pull in a breeze."
- Multipurpose your possessions. By day, Lundquist's dining table is her desk; by evening, she hosts dinner parties there. One set of dishes handles all her needs.